System? What System? I Don’t Need No Freakin’ System!

08 Oct

You’ve heard it again and again, and from your favorite authors.  Magic has to follow a system.  If it doesn’t it is confusing, it is cheating, it is deus ex machina!  That’s right: breaking your own rules is not allowed.  If you do, you are a bad writer.  Well, yes, breaking your own rules is a rather silly way to keep a reader’s suspension of disbelief.  Lying is dishonest.  No argument there.  If you say magic cannot bring back the dead on page 34, and the hero revives his dead love interest on page 52, it doesn’t give the reader a whole lot of confidence in the rest of what you tell them.  Since a book is just a bunch stuff you tell them, it’s not very good for them to be ignoring every word out of your mouth.

But see, that’s where all the confusion comes from: a set of rules is not a system.  A system is generative.  It takes a comparably small number of processes that are then used to generate an infinite set of products.  From Wikipedia: “A system can also be viewed as a bounded transformation process, that is, a process or collection of processes that transforms inputs into outputs. Inputs are consumed; outputs are produced. The concept of input and output here is very broad.”  Most magical “systems” are actually a set of rules or principles.  I’m re-assigning some words here but hey, a set of known terms makes a complicated discussion a lot easier.  So here are three terms I will be using and my definitions for them:

  1. System- a set of processes used to convert inputs to outputs.
  2. Principle- an overarching and generally accepted concept; a fundamental law
  3. Rule-  an arbitrary limit on possible effects
  4. Process- a series of connected events that lead to a new product.


  1. System- the water cycle
  2. Principle- the Laws of Sympathy and Contagion
  3. Rule- “magic may not bring back the dead”
  4. Process- photosynthesis

Now, I am going to make several assumptions, but they are fairly accurate, and for the purposes of this post, sufficient to support my argument.


  1. No author has ever used a system of magic.  I think this is self-evident according to the definitions above.  If anyone can explain to me the actual process of any magical act in fiction, I will dance naked on top of Everest. retract this statement.  I know I can’t give such an example.  If you do make the attempt, you must provide evidence and from canon sources produced by the creator of the system.
  2.  “Systems” in fiction are made up of a combination of rules and/or principles.
  3. Rules provide the feeling of science in the vast majority of “scientific magic systems”.
  4. The more specific the rules and principals, the more “scientific” the “system”.

Right off, we have discover that there is no such thing as a “system” of magic.  So, clearly, magic does not have to follow a system.  No magic has ever followed a system.  Nit-picking, you might say.  What does it matter?  Who cares about these abstract definitions?  Everyone should.  Definitions let you cut through the crap and find out just how exactly your favorite form of magic is constructed.  And how you should design your own form.

Now we get to the point.  Magic does not follow a system.  It follows a set of rules and principles that the author manipulates to create interest and a sound plot.  This can be tough.  Too little power means the hero cannot succeed, but too much means that the hero can succeed too easily.  It also leads to plot holes and a lack of tension.  The idea of having a “system” is to define clear and logical parameters that allow the hero to move forward, but also allow the book to develop suspense and emotional depth.  A “system” also helps the author avoid “deus ex machina”, which is a fancy phrase which means skipping out on the bill.  The reader gives the author respect and an income, and the author gives the reader an interesting and satisfying story.  The reader expects a character to succeed or fail on their own merit.  That’s what makes a story satisfying.

What magic really needs is not a system but consistency.  Consistency is satisfying.  A system could create consistency, but there are much simpler and more efficient ways of doing so.  Authors know this, and that is why they don’t really use systems, no matter how much they tell you they do.  And that is why you have to be careful about what you choose to believe.  Authors may not be intentionally lying, but damn it’s hard on you when they don’t express themselves properly.  And it makes them look bad.  They’re Authors god-dern it.  They ought to be able to get the meaning across properly or they shouldn’t be writing books.


Next time, we will talk about the goals of magic in fantasy and why magic has these goals.


Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Writing


Tags: , , , , , ,

4 responses to “System? What System? I Don’t Need No Freakin’ System!

  1. Adamant

    July 22, 2014 at 2:44 PM

  2. skylarklanding

    February 5, 2016 at 10:46 AM

    I’m not sure I get the definition of “system” used here and how it means no author has ever made a magic system. Many “systems” of magic used in fiction take some sort of energy or other payment as input, then produce an effect, or outcome. Is there some qualifier I’m missing here?

    • atsiko

      February 5, 2016 at 12:33 PM

      This is a really old post that probably needs some revision. I believe the argument I was making (rightly or wrongly) is that most authors stop at a set of rules without bothering to develop the underlying system completely. Even video games don’t generally have true systems, because a true system is closed. In my example of the water cycle, the amount of water is fixed, and you can see each stage and how it affects the world. Video games basically have infinite mana/magicka for example, and so don’t have to account for how the converted energy returns to the system.

      So for the example of magic systems in prose fiction: most authors have a rule set. Do a thing, and another thing happens. But whether or not one could argue for the existence of a system supporting those principles/rules, I’ve never seen an author who actually bothered to design one and incorporate the effects into their story.


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